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Friday, December 04, 2015

The Bird That Made NYC Crazy

(a.k.a. "The Bird That Broke The Internet")

If you haven't heard, there's a rare avian visitor to Brooklyn that has caused a bit of insanity among birders, the mainstream media and social media. I can only assume that the folks that haven't heard about it don't have a computer, radio, smart phone, television or read the newspaper. The funny thing is, this bird species isn't super rare in New York. It is, however, without a doubt the prettiest out-of-towner. I'm referring, of course, to the male Painted Bunting that has taken up temporary residence in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

Birding activity around the borough last weekend was pretty slow. On Sunday I decided to take a slow stroll around Green-Wood Cemetery. There were the expected winter sparrows, some finches, a few nuthatches, as well as, a few raptors eyeing the aforementioned. A somewhat rare Red-headed Woodpecker overwintering in the cemetery was the only interesting bird around. Out of boredom I thought I'd play find-six-species-of-woodpecker-in-one-day (we'd normally only see 5). I had only made it to four when around 10:30am I received the following tweet from my friend Keir:

"Male Painted Bunting at Prospect just south of ice rink. Can't see band but can't rule it out yet".

Seconds later my friend Heydi called to make sure I got the news and ask if I was headed over to look for the bunting. She sounded surprised when I didn't immediately agree to drop what I was doing and run over to Prospect Park. There were a couple of reasons for my hesitation. The first was that I'd actually seen a Painted Bunting in Brooklyn, ironically, also in Prospect Park. The year was 1999 and it was a female, which is an overall drab olive coloration. The second reason was that, at the time, the general thinking was that male Painted Buntings were frequently kept (illegally) as caged pets and the individuals that were seen way out of their southern range were most likely escaped birds. I called my friend Sean to get his better informed opinion. He let me know that if the bird isn't banded and the plumage is "clean", then it is probably a wild bird. We also discussed the systems of south-west winds that have carried some other interesting birds into our area over the past few weeks. I hung up with him and began the 3 mile trudge from the cemetery's Crescent Water to Prospect Park's skating rink.

Keir was still waiting at the edge of the wildflower habitat next to the new Lefrak skating rink where he first spotted the bunting. He had been joined by Heydi and a few other local birders. Apparently the bird had been flushed by some horses passing on the adjacent bridle path. Nobody had seen it for about 30 minutes. The new skating facility had been built into an artificial hillside with the berm on the east side covered in native wildflower plantings. It was the perfect habitat for a Painted Bunting, although about 600 miles passed their normal northern-most range.

I spent about 90 minutes with a small group of birders circling the area around the skating rink, but came up empty. I had promised to meet my wife for lunch, so announced I would be the sacrificial lamb (meaning the bird would be found as soon as I left) and headed home. We were just finishing up eating when Heydi texted me that the bird had returned. I asked Robin if she would like to take a walk to go see the gaudiest bird in North America. How could she not.

As we got close to the skating rink I texted Heydi to find out where they were seeing the bird. She advised to just look for the "crowd" of birders. Long story short, the Painted Bunting returned, first to a weedy path next to the bridle path, then an open spot on the berm behind the Lefrak Center. The sun was perfect, the bird was gorgeous and the crowd of birders "ooed" and "aahed" like July 4th celebrants watching fireworks. In an interview for CBS News my friend Sean perfectly described the bunting as "rainbow meets bird".

There's a part of this story that most people don't know about, and I hope Keir doesn't mind me sharing. I've known Keir for over six years and we've had a lot of great birding experiences together. He has been a part of our Christmas Bird Count team at Floyd Bennett Field since 2009. Well, this year will be his last count in New York as he and his family are relocating to Texas. When I walked up to him at the skating rink last Sunday I asked, "So, is this bird your parting gift to the birders of Brooklyn?" I should have said New York City. Keir just smiled.

Finally, here's my group email from 1999:

Date: March 30, 1999
Subject: Prospect Park

I spent an hour alone at the weedy patch beneath lightpost #249 this morning. Even though I'd seen the Painted Bunting that's been frequenting this spot I wanted another look. It didn't show up so I left and came back much later. Jonathan and I started searching the spot again at around noon. After about 30 patient minutes the bird just seemed to "appear" in the rose bushes on the right edge of the patch. Bob Bain and Ron Ellard joined us and we eventually had nice looks at the bird as it snapped up some small insects that hovered in the tangled branches of the rose shrub.


Prospect Park - 03/30/99
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Turkey Vulture (1. Over Long Meadow. First of year.)
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
Common Snipe (1. Over Lookout Hill. First of year.)
Monk Parakeet (3. Duck Island. First of year.)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Fish Crow
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Painted Bunting (1. BB, RE, RJ, JR. Wellhouse Drive. Lightpost 249.)
Common Grackle
American Goldfinch

Here are Steve Nanz's pre-digital photography shots of that bird:


I just did a little research and here is the list of accepted records for Painted Bunting in New York State:

- female, West Monroe, Oswego Co. 7 July 1978
- male, Richmond Co. 2 May 1983
- male, Pine City, Chemung Co. 6-7 May 1983
- male, Preble, Cortland Co. 5-6 May 1984
- imm. male, Richmond Co. 18-20 May 1985
- Lafayette, Dutchess Co. 10 Aug 1992
- female, Montauk, Suffolk Co. 19-28 Dec 1992
- female, Prospect Park, Kings Co. 26-30 Mar 1999
- female, Alley Pond Park, Queens Co. 25-26 November 2012

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